Connecting in a bike-way

Published: 12 January 2011

Summary:  Mariama is a 60-year-old Danish woman who has dedicated the last 20 years to building a partnership with a community in Faoune, southern Senegal. She married a local, Demba, and became his third wife. Demba is the leader of the farmer’s association. Mariama created an NGO, Cykler til Senegal (Bikes to Senegal), in 1996 to send bikes to women and children. Mariama and the NGO also cooperate in several other projects based on local needs. They brought poultry and reintroduced sesame to change the monoagriculture that has dominated since colonial times. They organised dinners in Denmark to raise money for mosquito nets to combat malaria. In cooperation with the local government in Senegal, they helped create a variety of strategies to integrate and implement development solutions. Their story demonstrates a holistic approach for reaching the Millennium Development Goals, especially the philosophy of partnership based on mutual understanding. The most efficient strategies are those that involve partnership and cooperation, from the grassroots to the European level. Individual initiatives and visions can be fulfilled and raise awareness.


“If development policies could be linked as strongly to the strengthening of the civil society as to the economy it would create a strong improvement on governance”- said Aung San Suu Kyi Nobel Peace Laureate in her special video message for the closing ceremony of the EDD (European Development Days).

The EuropAid aims to deliver development assistance in a more effective way by moving from projects towards general budget support. The large money transfer to the national treasury of a partner country in support of a national development policy can work in democratic societies, but will be problematic in those where human rights are violated daily.

How can a local community in a small African village influence the high-level policies? What can an ordinary European citizen do to be ‘development friendly’?

The European Union Ambassador of the European Year for Combating Poverty and Social Exclusion, Dr Lesley-Anne Knight said "When we start to see global issues in terms of people, individual lives, we are far more likely to feel solidarity and compassion with those who are affected.” Feeling solidarity is not enough. One has to act to make change. But when it comes to helping others, a very important question should be asked. Why do I help? Because I have more, I know how to do things better? Rama Naidu, the South African Democracy Development Program’s executive director came up with a totally new perspective. “We have to change the whole conversation that usually creates and keeps the world unbalanced. These are the stories about ‘Them’ and ‘Us’. Stories, in which one is better and has more to offer. We’d rather spend the time to find each other first and say ‘I want to share what you do and I want to feel what you feel’.” Here is a case to illustrate the kind of collectiveness that can make positive change in the world.

On a dark winter day of 1996, Elise got a phone call. "The strong voice was penetrating my cold Danish heart”- she laughs. A man introduced himself as the leader of the farmer’s association in southern Senegal. He needed help to collect old bikes for his community. A few months later the man visited Elise, and they fell in love. She became the third wife, and got a new name: Mariama (mother of Jesus). “The fact that I converted to Islam and accepted to make my prayers together with him in a Muslim way, gave a strong help for me to become accepted as human being, wife, mother, and as a nurse.”

She created an organization called ‘Cykler til Senegal’ (Bikes to Senegal) and started to collect bikes.

They have sent 5700 bikes since 1996, 2 containers annually. “I found the idea very good. It is concrete; it does not demand big machines or technology. Connecting in a bike way is a direct, face to face thing.” They started to collaborate with an NGO that was part of the Danish International Development Agency (organization inside the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Denmark) to get funding.

Going back and forth between Denmark and Senegal, she started to give lectures. She got inspired and became better informed that she set out to raise awareness on the key issues of development: the people.

“It was always positive. I spoke about strong people in hard situations.” As she got more and more invitations, she started to organize exchange travels for small group of people and initiate other projects. "I had an optician friend. He made 9000 pair of used glasses- they gave it out after testing the eyes in schools so that they can see better.”

Another project was the ’dinner against malaria’, a series of charity concert and dinner on a ferry. "We raised 40 000 Danish kroner, sent it down to local NGO’s, who bought mosquito nets locally, as they are cheaper and supported by the government.” They made a theatre team: a man with 2 wives. They go around the villages to talk about why do you get malaria, what do you do for prevention, when do you need to go tested, what can you take as medicine. “In the role-play the man and the first wife doesn’t want mosquito nets, the second wife does. When the malaria is critical, the man and the first wife is about to die, so the second wife invites both of them under her net, and save them. They laugh together with the audience and discuss it in a cultural level. That is how they integrate it. I can see now more people having nets. The state got involved, and now they have a strategy against malaria.”

As a poverty reduction strategy, Mariama’s organization cooperated with the University of Agriculture. They brought poultry to the village.

”Women were trained in income generating skills to become self-reliant. They learnt how to calculate, read and write, as part of the program. Groups of ten women came together and applied for small loans from local banks. So the poorest women who had nothing to guarantee were finally able to have loans. They had business plan, and they learnt how to better handle their own projects.”

They also care about maternal health. "We are using massage and acupuncture points as a tool to help women during delivery. It is easy and free, and has its long traditions. But we also have supported women by sending 2700 sewing-machines.


Why to put gender equitable local development at the centre? "The reason we should emphasize gender equality is because it is not only women who benefit from it, but the whole society. Women are the care givers, and they have a lot of indigenous knowledge on how to preserve the environment.”- explains Mary Okumu, Chief Technical Advisor of the United Nations Capital Development Fund, South Africa. "If we can bring women’s aspiration into policy as well, I think we would have more stable governments.”

To improve development aid to the developing countries, decision makers should have a background in working with local communities. Former NGO leader Krzysztof Stanowski remembers how he became the undersecretary of State at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Poland. "Suddenly my government realized that people who are working in field should influence the policies.”

Development must be about creating space for dialogue, especially among different actors and stakeholders. But we should remember that the dialogue is about people, and their real needs. Their voice should be heard and told, and we better listen to hear it, because there is so much to share.